Category Archives: Civil liberties

My Letter to Bernie Sanders

I am posting a letter that I wrote to U.S. Senator and Democratic Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders in late October. Although I will likely vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein in the general election, I would like to see Sanders win the Democratic Primary. Having Stein and Sanders together on a nationally televised debate stage would be a breakthrough that would elevate policy discourse from political expediency to undaunted progressivism.

In the letter that follows, “CORE” is an acronym for Congress of Racial Equality, an organization that Sanders led to oppose racial segregation in off-campus housing owned by the University of Chicago.

Dear Senator Sanders:

After weeks of procrastination, I am finally getting around to sending you a letter and a check for $100. America cannot afford eight more years of compassionate conservatism, which is what we’ve been getting since 1981. Nor can we afford continuation of the endless wars in Afghanistan and Syria, which remind me of the endless war of Orwell’s 1984.

Hillary Clinton has suddenly become more outspoken on gun control, and I’m glad that she is doing so. However, I believe that your positions on firearms are constituent-driven rather than corporate-driven.

Clinton also is popular among African-Americans, although articles that I’ve read describe your courageous activism for civil rights. If you can dig out more evidence of this, like the photo on your website of your leading a CORE meeting, I believe that you can use these materials to help you tell your story of activism.

Most importantly, however, addressing the current economic plight of African-Americans could help you diversify your support. Portraying your activist experience and your commitment to prosperity for all in a television ad might be an effective way to reach African-Americans.

Finally, I would like to see you personalize the issues that you talk about, using stories that supporters have written to you, some of which I’ve seen in your e-mails.

Who’s really targeting your privacy?

On the TV show “Jeopardy” recently, host Alex Trebek asked contestant Mark Lowenthal of the Intelligence and Security Academy a question about NSA surveillance during the break on the show when the host briefly chats with the contestants. Prof. Lowenthal replied by saying that he is more concerned about non-governmental collection of our personal information. This concern was expressed also by Prof. William Nolte of the Univ. of Maryland Cybersecurity Center during a forum (video) broadcast on C-SPAN earlier this month.

The most recent example of a non-governmental breach of our privacy is the theft of customers’ credit card data from Target and other major retailers. Almost as bad is the breach of applicants’ privacy when an employer is hiring. When taking applications for an open position, employers seem to want to know everything about applicants except how well they can do the job. (I have written more about this issue in my previous post.) I suppose that the firm or agency that performed the pre-employment background check on Edward Snowden collected more information about him than the NSA collects during its routine surveillance of U.S. citizens.

Regardless of how we view Snowden’s action, we could probably agree that it re-ignited the conversation about NSA surveillance that began during the Bush administration. Because that administration attempted to quell dissent through targeted IRS audits and other means1, NSA surveillance seemed more threatening then than it does today. The Obama administration has not attempted to quell dissent, as far as I know.2

In my view, NSA surveillance is threatening mostly when it is done in an unconstitutional manner or coupled with violations of our civil liberties or with official campaigns against dissent. What the NSA wants to know about you, I believe, is less significant than what data thieves and corporations want.

1. Wolf, Naomi. The End of America Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2007
2. To those who still believe that the IRS unfairly targeted Tea-Party groups, I suggest reading this previous post of mine.

This Is What Less Government Looks Like

The scandal over the IRS evaluations of the tax-exempt status of certain political groups was brilliantly explained in context by Chris Hayes and by Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC this week. They pointed out that these evaluations began in early 2010 when the so-called “Tea Party” groups had just begun to organize. The specific purpose of these organizations was unclear to me and probably also to the IRS analysts who had to review their applications for tax-exempt status.

Were the Tea Party groups formed to raise money, to get out the vote, to lobby, or to advocate for a cause? The answer to this question is crucial in determining whether or not they can be tax-exempt. Because the Tea Party movement was new and its mission was unclear, making this determination could have required analysts to further inquire about the activities of groups that identified with the movement. It is therefore possible that these groups were selected for further inquiry not because of political bias but because of their novelty and numerousness.

Many of these groups were applying for 501(c)(4) status, which requires that the organization be engaged primarily in social welfare activities. Trying to determine whether this requirement is clearly being met by organizations whose name implies a political purpose adds to the difficulty that analysts might have had. Names that contain the words “tea party” or “patriot” very well imply that an organization has a political purpose, moreover, so these terms are convenient to use as keywords to search for such organizations.

Processing the thousands of applications for tax exemption in a fair and efficient manner requires adequate staffing, training, and resources. Yet, as pointed out by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and affirmed by the outgoing IRS Acting Assistant Commissioner during the hearing Friday, the IRS has increasingly been forced to do more with less, as its workforce has shrunk from about 114,000 in 1994 to 90,000 today. (See footnote.) The result is longer processing times and the temptation to take risky shortcuts. Reduced training further increases the risk of mistakes. This is what “less government” looks like.

Because of the circumstances under which the agents were working, and because I believe that no Constitutional rights were violated, I am not convinced that the additional scrutiny of the Tea Party groups was a criminal activity motivated by political bias.

However, another part of this scandal has stronger implications of criminal activity. IRS agents sent copies of unapproved applications to Pro Publica, a non-profit research organization. Because only approved applications are allowed to be made available to the public, this leak is illegal. Better training, however, might have prevented this.

Pro Publica requested the applications as part of its investigation of how political organizations have been able to pose as social welfare organizations in order to get a 501(c)(4) tax exemption. Before 1959, however, organizations had to be exclusively engaged in social welfare in order to be tax-exempt, as Lawrence O’Donnell has been pointing out this week, and the word “exclusive” was changed to “primarily” in the IRS regulations under the Eisenhower administration.

What is therefore really outrageous is that political organizations can be tax-exempt by registering as social welfare organizations, and that some of the largest and wealthiest of these organizations aren’t getting the scrutiny that they should get.

Footnote: The reduction in IRS staff could be partly explained by the shrinking number of individual income tax returns that are submitted by mail.

Gov. Perry, Stop Pretending to be a Libertarian

Texas Governor Rick Perry has opposed a ban on texting while driving because he doesn’t want government to “micromanage the behavior of adults.” On this issue, Perry is acting as a libertarian. (I am using lowercase “L” because I am not referring to the Libertarian Party.) However, in order to have stronger libertarian credentials, Perry must act to abolish the death penalty and the
Enterprise Fund, a corporate welfare program. He must also stop enforcing No Child Left Behind and the Patriot Act and, finally, recognize same-sex marriages and allow women and girls the right to micromanage their reproductive choices.

Expulsion of Due Process

On November 6 voters in the District of Columbia will have an opportunity to vote on ethics laws that, if passed, would be included as amendments to the Home Rule Charter. Proposed Charter Amendment V provides for the expulsion of councilmembers for gross misconduct. The legislative text from the D.C. Register is the following.

By a 5/6 vote of its members, the Council may adopt a resolution of expulsion if it finds, based on substantial evidence, that a member of the Council took an action that amounts to a gross failure to meet the highest standards of personal and professional conduct. Expulsion is the most severe punitive action, serving as a penalty imposed for egregious wrongdoing. Expulsion results in the removal of the member. Expulsion should be used in cases in which the Council determines that the violation of law committed by a member is of the most serious nature, including those violations that substantially threaten the public trust. To protect the exercise of official member duties and the overriding principle of freedom of speech, the Council shall not impose expulsion on any member for the exercise of his or her First Amendment right, no matter how distasteful the expression of that right was to the Council and the District, or in the official exercise of his or her office.
The Council shall include in its Rules of Organization procedures for investigation, and consideration of, the expulsion of a member.

If you are a D.C. resident, then I urge you to reject Proposed Charter Amendment V for the following reasons.
1. The legislative text contains vague criteria for expulsion.
2. It does not guarantee due process of law.
3. Because of its political nature, a legislature should never have the authority to remove one of its own members.

Charter Amendment V is a dangerous proposition and must therefore be rejected.

A Mandate for Harry and Louise

I’m sure that almost every public-affairs blog will say something about the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold Obamacare, and this blog will also. Three major problems with Obamacare are its infringement on civil liberties, the use of individual mandates to solve long-standing social and economic problems, and possible preclusion of a single-payer system.

The deciding opinion in the Supreme Court decision came from Chief Justice John Roberts, who said that the individual mandate is not an absolute mandate because individuals have a choice between obtaining health insurance or paying an extra amount through their tax return. Roberts regards this extra amount as a tax, but it’s really a fine–just like a fine that you pay for a traffic violation–and therefore the mandate is absolute. Did the court consider the right to privacy and freedom of association?

The Supreme Court’s validation of the individual mandate sets a dangerous precedent. It empowers the U.S. Government to solve long-standing social and economic problems by forcing individuals to engage in some economic or other activity. For example, Obama or some future President or Congress could abolish Social Security and force everyone to establish a 401(k) plan.

A mandate would not be necessary in a single-payer health insurance system because it would be free. On the radio program Democracy Now, Michael Moore, producer of the documentary film “Sicko,” said that Obamacare is a step toward a single-payer system. On the contrary, Obamacare enshrines and preserves for-profit health insurance and gives it a captive market. In spite of the regulations that attempt to micromanage the health-insurance industry, revenue from premiums could be used to support lobbying and other efforts aimed at thwarting a single-payer system.

A single-payer health insurance system would be held accountable to us, the taxpayers, not to shareholders. For more information about single payer, see this overview by Physicians for a National Health Program.